GRAND MARAIS, Minn. — Sandwiched between the magnificence of Lake Superior and the Sawtooth Mountains, Grand Marais seems ho-hum. But don't let its disheveled downtown deceive. This is one of the best bases for exploring the North Shore. Stay in a hotel overlooking the lake, stroll to a gourmet dinner, shop at an art gallery or a classic five-and-dime, and explore the outdoors. The town may not have the charm of Lutsen's clapboard lodge or the flash of Naniboujou Lodge's painted dining room, but in the end it wows as much as the surrounding scenery.
Tucked against Lake Superior, Grand Marais, population 1,351, was once a sleepy fishing village. All that's changed, in part because it occupies one of the most scenic spots along the Arrowhead. At the edge of town, a windblown spit of land juts out into the lake, helping to form a big bay and a calm harbor, so the town looks embraced by Superior.
Get tourist information at http://www.grandmarais.com.
WHAT TO DO:
The Gunflint Trail — which cuts inland to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and where moose sometimes wander onto the road — begins its winding way in Grand Marais, but you don't really need to drive along that road to feel lost among the elements. Instead, take a walk along the bay beach to Artists' Point, the peninsula of rock and pine trees that juts out into Superior. It's the locals' go-to hike.
If you want more miles, not to mention views, of the lake, head just outside of town to Pincushion Mountain Trail System (www.pincushion trails.org). Or pop onto the Superior Hiking Trail (www.shta .org) from a number of entry points near Grand Marais.
Perhaps you'd rather hike from store to store downtown. The Sivertson Gallery (www.sivertson.com) offers warm tea for sipping while browsing its collection of works from Inuit, Alaskan and regional artists. The locally made jewelry is nice eye candy, too.
Joynes Ben Franklin Department Store can hook you up with everything from Uggs and Carhartts to Barbie dolls and Norwegian sweaters (joynesbenfranklin.com).
With its diminutive size and purple shutters next to the beach, Drury Lane Books looks like a fairytale house (www.drurylanebooks.com). That's appropriate given its small but spellbinding collection of books for children and adults.
Around the harbor bend from downtown is the North House Folk School, a collection of clapboard buildings where artisans preserve northern crafts by teaching hands-on classes (www.northhouse.org). Subjects include knitting, kayak-making and surprises such as "deer processing for carnivorous locavores." Visitors are welcome to explore the campus and stop by the gift shop.
If you're in need of gear — or inspiration — check out Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply (www.stoneharborws.com) on the bay. The hot spot for outdoor sports opened in June 2010 and has been selling and renting essential supplies — and some unusual cool outdoor toys — ever since.
In the summer, there are kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. But when snow flies, this place becomes the cutting edge of winter fun. You can rent the usual cross-country skis and snowshoes. But you can also rent — or buy — Wintergreen clothing (beyond warm and pricey to own), Snowtrekker winter tents and the wood-burning stoves to keep them cozy, and Marquette skis, a sort of ski-snowshoe hybrid that lets you hike up a snowy trail and ski down the other side. Want some tips for your first time? Snow Harbor offers guided outings.
The place also sells nordic skates, which are specialized blades that attach to cross-country ski boots and are made for gliding over the bumps and cracks of frozen rivers and lakes. It's your route to explore the Boundary Waters by skate.
WHERE TO EAT:
Judi Barsness not only cooks exceptional meals at her sophisticated harborside restaurant, Chez Jude, she also teaches others how to do the same by offering cooking classes (www.chezjude.com; closed in November and April). At Crooked Spoon Cafe, inventive, delicious dinners include Lake Superior fish with cucumber-corn relish (www.crooked spooncafe.com; closed after today until Dec. 27). For live music and chili with a micro-brew beer, head to Gun Flint Tavern (www.gunflinttavern.com). Breakfasts are divine at the Pie Place (www.northshorepieplace.com); don't miss the maple sausage.
WHERE TO SLEEP:
Only in Grand Marais' website (www.grandmarais.com) offers links to a variety of lodging options, from cabins to B&Bs. I've enjoyed East Bay Suites, with luxury units that have sleek kitchens, stone fireplaces and expansive views of the lake just beyond the balcony (www.eastbaysuites.com).
Grand Marais is northeast of Duluth, Minn., on Lake Superior, along Hwy. 61. The drive from the Minneapolis/ St. Paul takes about 4 12/2 hours.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun